Former Executive of Non-Profit Construction Company To Face Prison For Exposing Students To Asbestos

Illustration of legal cases for asbestos and mesothelioma

Former administrative manager for the now-defunct non-profit Firm Build Joseph Cuellar will serve 44 months in state prison and 22 months in federal for exposing Merced County high schools students to asbestos. The organization’s president, Patrick Bowman, and construction project site manager, Rudy Buendia III, were both previously sentenced last year.

“It’s been a long and difficult road to justice,” said the deputy district attorney for Merced County, Walter Wall. “I’m glad to see it finally come to an end and for them to receive some justice.”

The company contracted with the Merced County Office of Education with the supposed intention of providing on-site job training to high school students. However, the courts ruled Cuellar actually used the 16 and 17-year-old students to remove the known human carcinogen at Castle Commerce Center’s Automotive Training Center from September 2005 to March 2006.

Firm Build was originally established in 1998 as a Merced Housing Authority program to teach construction skills to low-income clients, but knee-deep in scandal, the non-profit folded in 2007.

Back in 2014, Merced County District Attorney, Larry Morse II, spoke to Buendia’s case saying, “I am frankly very tired of hearing about poor Rudy Buendia. The focus should be on the kids who were exposed to asbestos because [Buendia et al.] were in over their heads financially and looking to cut some corners. Buendia is most assuredly not a victim; the kids who were exposed were the victims.”

In two years, Cuellar will be eligible for parole, but this could be long-lasting for the students seeing as asbestos exposure can lead to mesothelioma cancer; a malignancy that occurs in the lining of the lungs, abdomen, and heart. As a naturally occurring mineral with useful commercial application, asbestos is found in plumbing, insulation, and other building materials and products. Some 30 million pounds of it is still used each year in the United States.

Many of the students, now in their 20s, testified to their clothes being covered in dust while removing the materials. Others stated the debris caused by the material breaking up formed a cloud, which was unavoidably inhaled through their noses and mouths. And others complained of nosebleeds, chest pains, and associated respiratory issues. Reckless disregard was taken for their safety and a resulting total of prison time and $1.8 million will be paid to the victims.

As mentioned above, the cancer these students could eventually develop would be caused by the inhalation of airborne asbestos fibers. Scientists have determined that even a small amount of exposure could be deadly, however, a 20-50 year latency period often exists between exposure and diagnosis.